U2: Angels 2 Tied 2 the 'Great' & the 'Good'

My 1993 book 'Race of Angels' revisited with a question: Was it ever possible that Ireland might have escaped the clutches of the global tyranny now encroaching, and gone on our way by our own lights?

This is an adaptation, a slight reworking, of something I wrote 28 years ago. The purpose of reworking it is not a mere reheating, but a re-appropriation for the purposes of underlining the moment we have arrived at now in relation to the coordinates that appeared then to position us more or less definitively as a nation and culture searching to find itself by its own lights, thereby underlining the scale of the tragedy that now befalls us. It was a chapter in a book, Race of Angels: Ireland and the Genesis of U2, published in 1994, ostensibly about that Dublin foursome but actually much more about the potential and possibilities of Irish cultural directions as they appeared at that moment of sudden and ambiguous lurching. U2 were there because of their, at that point, extraordinary series of artistic statements, from Boy to Achtung Baby, and because nobody else on the contemporary artistic scene of the time appeared to offer any similar story for excavation and comparison. There just wasn’t anybody else, and things are far worse now, which means that nothing that has happened since has validated the ‘culture’ aspect of the book’s thesis. And U2 have gone to the dark side, hobnobbing with the encroaching neo-totalitarians, Gates and Soros, so I must at the outset say that any predictive element contained in the book in that regard has been radically unvindicated. But the mission of the book remains a worthy one, and nobody else had or has attempted it. It might be summarised as something akin to this question: Is it possible for the unique and even buried elements of a rich but damaged culture to erupt, possibly radically transfigured, and speak in this altered form to a new age in the tongue of forgotten times, without there being any necessarily conscious ’memory’ of those elements?

The book set out to demonstrate how, up to that moment, the music of U2 might have offered a positive answer to this question. The question, though it remained mostly implicit for most of the book, was explored from all kinds of angles, with the help of various sources and thinkers, and three of the four members of U2. This, the penultimate chapter, called Laughable Angels, made the question more or less explicit, and also raised a rather darker question as to what might happen if we failed to realise our true destination-point.

My thesis was that the eruption the band represented from the early 1980s was a story about Ireland’s deep potential to be different, to tap into its prior history of oppression, cultural and actual, so as to elude all modern and future forms of colonialism and external interference, and to draw on is own history and culture in order to speak to the world in a new and unexpected way, and possibly help other nations in doing the same. The logic was that, still relatively unspoilt, Ireland presented a blank sheet on which a different idea of the future might be sketched, one that avoided the errors of modernity and preserved more of what was worth preserving than others had managed to do. None of that came to pass. Actually, something like the opposite happened, under just about every heading you might think of, not excluding the artistic one, where most of the burden was required to be accepted. It is, then, a tragic story in the purest Grecian sense: a disaster arising from the fatal flaws of its own eventual victims. Those of us who wanted Ireland to realise itself in the modern world, while remaining recognisably the dear land we loved so profoundly, lost that war — as, sad to say, we lost every other war. To steal a somewhat dislocated phrase: Every gun we ever had went off. 

For reasons that may, therefore, now be obvious — but which in any event I do not propose to spell out here — I have removed most of the U2-related sections from the original chapter, though for complex reasons not all. They were, after all, the central motif of the book and it is not like anybody else had or has stepped up to take their place. In some senses, these references now manifest as disconcerting taunts from the distant past, but they may also provide a fleeting salutary understanding of how we may have gone awry. The stuff I have removed mostly relates to the technicalities and philosophy of the band’s creative processes, which was interesting and germane, but not essential to the theme of the chapter.

So now the world is where it is as a result of following that path it chose, and which Ireland, in defiance of all other possibilities, chose to follow also. The tragedy here relates not so much to U2, and their anti-artistic clinging to the ‘great’ and the ‘good’, but to all of us who now find ourselves still on this island but with the phrase ‘changed utterly’ acquiring a newer and darker patina of irony with every living hour. And the truly deeper tragedy is that the possibilities I was trying to get at in Race of Angels were not just lost, but spurned. Almost nobody read the book, of course, but that is neither here nor there. One person — the right person — reading it and understanding its intentions, might have been enough. But that was in no sense necessary. The book’s question was implicit also in ‘the life of the building’ — the day-to-day rattle and hum of Irish reality and its one-after-the-other possibilities. At every turn we chose wrongly, and moreover chose, as I say, perversely, as though spitting in the ghost-faces of our dead ancestors. And we haven’t stopped, even yet, at this late hour.

There is a word missing from the chapter, and yet this word haunts the entire text. The word is ‘transhumanism’, but, though it does not appear, it is more or less what is — albeit unwittingly — being talked about throughout. It did exist as an idea, even then, having been invented in 1957 by the British scientist and philosopher, Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous, author of Brave New World, but remained no more than a mad sci-fi theory. The word had not erupted into popular usage — nor has it yet done so. But now, though suppressed by the corrupt media, it haunts every moment of our existence in what is left of our freedom, for it no longer can be called a sci-fi fantasy, it being the default destination-point for our societies unless we manage to awaken one another with exceptional speed. It is the bedrock meaning of everything that has been happening to us for the past 18 months, the box in which every piece of the Covid jigsaw arrived unpacked down the chimney 18 months ago. It is central to the deconstructions set out by Mattias Desmet in the article published here last Friday, Covid Totalitarianism: The Deification of Error — indeed he says as much: that transhumanism is ultimately what all this has been about.

I had intended to follow up that article more or less immediately with another about the thoughts of the late French philosopher, Jacques Ellul, but a voice kept telling me that something else ought to come first. This, I believe, may be the missing part: a slice of Ireland past and what its options might have looked and felt like, if you were disposed to think about such things. The purpose of the present exercise is to place what at least amounts to a deeper than usual examination of recent cultural Irish history in the context of the (culturally) impoverished present, insinuating as it does the dark questions that confront and challenge us now, as we trundle towards what looks from this end of the telescope like a technological tyranny such as the world has never seen. It is not an exercise in what-if?, but an attempt to frame the present moment in a different way, embracing Ireland Past, as well as Ireland Future, with a view to asking — hopefully, not entirely rhetorically — if there is anything to be done.

Click here to read the revised chapter from Race of Angels, and 2021 coda:

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